Toy today, tool tomorrow

This is a repost of The toys of today, the tools of tomorrow, which I originally posted in April 2008.

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The toys of today, the tools of tomorrow

At the end of a brief history of human communication, Dave Gray of XPLANE gets to what he sees as the future of communications: visual communications.

Today, we are free once more. Paradoxically, now that everything has been reduced to zeros and ones, our only limit is our imagination. What’s interesting is that we continue to constrain ourselves to the grid, even when it is no longer necessary. The conventions of printing, which once liberated ideas by making them mass-producible, have now become a prison.

So what’s next? Watch the kids. In the 1970s we started playing video games, and although we didn’t know it at the time, we were learning how to interact with digital technologies. We were learning the hand-eye coordination skills we would need to operate the computers of the 1980s.

The toys of today are the tools of tomorrow: blogging, podcasting, photosharing, videoblogging – these are all early indicators. People are making their own movies and publishing their ideas to the world. With every passing year the technology gets cheaper and easier to use.

As Dave alludes to, we all learn how to use tools when we are young, by playing with them as toys. How many of you had toy trucks and played at construction. How about “play” carpenters? (I’m a guy, so please excuse the boy bias.) Using the “toys” of today is much the same, with one key difference being that the “toys” that kids play with are often the very same “tools” that adults use. (No plastic saw blades here!) This obviously presents some dangers, and how kids play with their digital “toys” needs to be watched, but it makes the process of gaining literacy go that much faster.

So next time someone asks you why you’re “playing around with those toys”, or why you let your kids spend so much time on the computer or playing (or designing!) video games, just tell them you’re not “playing”, you’re learning how to use the tools you’ll need to be successful tomorrow.

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This is as true, if not more so, today than just a year ago.  To Dave’s list above I would add Social Media in general as a “toy” that today’s kids are “playing” with that will become a very powerful tool for them in their future, and that many are actually using as a tool today.

In my experience as a rookie FIRST Robotics mentor, I was amazed at the extensive use of all types of social media by other mentors and, especially, of the kids involved in FIRST. In fact, the kids are using these tools in a way that most of the mentors (myself included) would likely never dream of.

By playing with the toys available to them, these kids are teaching us adults how we could – should – be using the incredible tools that are right at our fingertips.

Cool phrase of the day: Effective Efficiency

In a post earlier today, Jack Vinson reflects on six years of his blog Knowledge Jolt.  Jack was one of the first bloggers I ever followed and was one of the reasons I first started blogging, also nearly six years ago in June 2003.

I’ve had a bit of a blogging-block of late (I blame Twitter), so I thought I’d take the occassion of the upcoming anniversary of my first blog post to revisit my earlier blogs and repost (with maybe a little editing) my favorites in the hopes that this may get the juices flowing again.  It is fitting that this first one, originally posted on 1 Dec 05, was inspired, in part, by Jack.

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Cool phrase of the day: Effective Efficiency

Effective efficiency from Frank Patrick’s Focused Performance Weblog[The Focused Performance Weblog is still up and running, but the article I originally linked to doesn’t seem to be there anymore.  Odd.  -gbm ]

Jack Vinson and Jim McGee presented a session at BlawgThink about how knowledge management and collaboration affect productivity and process, which I like to look at as effectiveness and efficiency. (Now you know why the phrase appeals to me so much.)

BlawgThink attendee Jeffrey Phillips has also written a bit about process, etc in several posts: Sometimes process doesn’t matter and Actively Unhelpful are two that have caught my eye in recent days.

In the old days of the Industrial Age the relationship between efficiency and effectiveness was, for the most part, a linear one: the more efficient you were, the more effective (productive) you were. [It would probably be more accurate to say, “..the more effective you could be.”  -gbm] Even in the information age there are some activities which are, in essence, information assembly lines in which this relationship holds.

True knowledge work (whatever that is), however, seems to me to have an inverse relationship between efficiency and effectiveness. In other words, the more efficient a process the less room there is for the “waste” that is necessary to support innovation.

I don’t believe this is a straight linear relationship, though, nor is it likely a purely exponential relationship. Somewhere along the line, there is a spike that shows the optimum amount of efficiency to achieve maximum effectiveness in a given knowledge activity. (Note that, unlike an assembly line situation where most situations are very similar, true knowledge activities are almost always unique.)

Of course, this all goes back to what exactly we mean by knowledge work. There, I think more than anywhere, the definition of “productivity” and “effectiveness” is truly in the eye of the beholder.

You don’t get better at writing essays by writing more essays

Though perhaps a bit more rigorous in his approach, what Geoff Colvin has to say about deliberate practice in Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else is not unlike what George Leonard says about “practice” in Mastery or how Josh Waitzkin describes his process of mastering chess and T’ai Ch’i in his recent book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  What caught my eye about Colvin’s book, and the main reason I read it, is its relating of this idea of deliberate practice and high performance to the world of business.

Early on in Chapter 7, Colvin highlights an issue that I’ve wrestled with in my mind for many years:

We saw earlier how hostile to the principles of well-structured deliberate practice most companies seem.  That’s all the more puzzling when you consider how many high-profile organizations apart from businesses embrace these principles.  We’re awed by the performance of champion sports team or great orchestras and theater companies, but when we get to the office, it occurs to practically no one that we might  have something to learn by studying how some people became so accomplished.  The U.S. military has made itself far more effective by studying and adopting these principles….  But at most companies – as well as most educational institutions and many nonprofit organizations – the fundamentals of great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.

The reference to the military really struck home with me, since over half of my professional life (so far) was spent as an officer in the Army.  To simply say that the Army engages in “deliberate practice” – at both the individual and organizational levels – would be a gross understatement.  In fact, in a peacetime Army the primary activity of soldiers and units is deliberate practice, with the explicit goal of continually improved performance.  (More on a wartime military in a bit.)

When I left the military and joined the corporate world, what struck me most was how little practicing – and how little learning and improving – anyone did.  For anything.  The general impression was that if you needed to “practice”, then you obviously were the wrong person for the job.  (This is the “hostility” to the principles of deliberate practice that Colvin refers to in the quote above.)  Needless to say, in the areas where I had influence I did my best to change that perception.

The problem is, as the title of this post hints at, that you can’t get better at something by just doing that something.  The early part of Talent is Overrated is full of examples:  Jerry Rice didn’t become the greatest football player ever by playing football games; Tiger Woods didn’t become the greatest golfer by simply playing endless rounds of golf; and Benjamin Franklin didn’t become the incredible writer that he was by writing essays.  All of these people, and many more, became incredibly good at what they do (did) through deliberate practice.

One of the biggest challenges for a wartime military is how to balance the need and desire for deliberate practice and continued improvement with the day-to-day operational requirements of carrying out its missions.  Having spent a few years now in the civilian world of business, I’ve come to realize that the “operational environment” of most organizations is much like that of a wartime military – there is such a strong focus on meeting day to day mission requirements that it is a challenge to find the time for individuals and teams to engage in deliberate practice to improve their ability to perform.

Colvin finishes with some thoughts on how organizations can apply the principles he addresses in the book for both individuals and teams.  And he believes, and I think shows throughout the book, that any organization, any individual, has the ability to become great at what they do if they are willing to put in the work.